Costly OHA infighting adds to concerns over trust spending

Always Investigating

Mounting legal costs and allegations of wasteful spending are being lobbed by both sides of a bitterly divided Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and some say the Hawaiian community is paying the price.

The November elections were followed by a power shift on the OHA board, and Always Investigating has learned that legal fights have resulted in massive fees with even higher bills possible.

Lawsuits against OHA by its own — new chairwoman, Rowena Akana, and one of its newest members, Kelii Akina — have cost upward of $1.5 million in public trust funds.

“Both of you have consistently raised the issue about fiscal sustainability,” trustee Peter Apo said at a Thursday OHA board meeting. “Based on your actions, it’s kind of like inviting the fox into the chicken coop dressed as a chicken.”

Akana’s lawsuit over OHA’s process leading up to its Nimitz office and retail building purchase, and Akina’s role in legal challenges over Hawaiian governance and election issues, stand to rack up more legal fees.

“The $531,000 spent on it (Akana’s lawsuit so far) was spent by this board trying to keep me from going to court over the sunshine law,” Akana pointed out in response to Apo, “so I didn’t incur those costs. You did. You know, when you let the cat out of the bag, you’ve got to finish it.”

“Other plaintiffs, the majority of which are Native Hawaiian beneficiaries of OHA, felt that OHA had done some things that were unconstitutional,” Akina said of his organization, Grassroots Institute, taking part in lawsuits against Hawaiian election processes. “You blamed me for the expenditure, but in reality, it was not my suit that caused the spending of that money. It was the need for OHA to defend itself.”

Akana took over the divided board just a week ago after a secret-ballot election led to a partial walkout.

Now former trustees such as Haunani Apoliona and Oz Stender are speaking out, and Kauai’s trustee, Dan Ahuna, says the board should do no more business under Akana until all legal matters are resolved.

“Surprisingly this person judged to have breached her fiduciary duties was elected by five trustees including herself to provide leadership of the breach Native Hawaiian public trust. Auwe,” Apoliona said in public testimony at the board meeting. “It is imperative that you now correct your action.”

It’s costly infighting that’s wearing on the nerves of Hawaiian beneficiaries who question just how deep the spending goes.

“Everybody on this table, your hands are dirty,” testifier Rupert Rowe told the board.

“There’s a lot of terrible things that have been done with OHA and OHA money,” testified Healani Sonoda-Pale of the group Protest Nai Aupuni. “We want to know where that leftover money from Nai Aupuni went. Did it come back to OHA? OHA wasted approximately $33 million. Can you imagine what you could do with $33 million in failed campaigns to create a federally recognized Hawaiian nation? We would like something very specific, line item, and whose friends got paid in this whole scam.”

New trustee Akina campaigned on transparency and redirecting spending toward core benefits for the community.

“The vast majority of Hawaiian beneficiaries want that money spent on bread and butter issues, housing, jobs, education, and health care, and not on governance,” Akina said.

The meeting started with Akina being considered and then losing the vote for a finance committee vice chairmanship. He was voted down by opponents who questioned how he can serve both OHA and head the Grassroots Institute, which was a plaintiff against Native Hawaiian vote roll and election efforts.

“Grassroots Institute has led the charge to dismantle Hawaiian institutions,” Ahuna said. “The trend here, you have shown over and over that you not only disavow our mission, but it seems you are dead set against it.”

“My action to call OHA to a stop of a misuse of money was not only to keep OHA constitutional,” Akina responded, “it was also to be in compliance with the will of our beneficiaries.”

Committee leadership aside for now, more legal expenses could be ahead as challenges mount over Akina’s very presence on the board.

“I believe that he should either resign from OHA or resign from the Grassroots Institute as the civic clubs have suggested,” Lilikala Kameeleihiwa testified.

“My staff and I sat with the state Ethics Commission and discussed this matter,” Akina said, “and found they considered there was no conflict of interest so long as we do not use our influence to benefit my non-profit.”

The lawsuits are at various stages of settlement talks or determinations on who is ultimately liable for lawyer fees. This as the new board leadership promises tighter reins on OHA spending.

We’re tracking this and other spending concerns raised with OHA and we’ll be following up with what we find.

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